Deer defense: State steps in when depradation is too much

LEHR, N.D. -- Deer stand by the dozens from the swales surrounding the Boschee Brothers ranch in south-central Logan County, N.D. Waiting. As soon as humans leave the scene, they're drawn like magnets to the rows of large round hay bales pictures...

Destructive deer
Deer peer among the bales on the Boschee Brothers ranch near Lehr, N.D., as if to say "We're hungry!" Cleo Boschee worries they may carry disease into his Angus cow herd.(Mikkel Pates / Agweek)

LEHR, N.D. -- Deer stand by the dozens from the swales surrounding the Boschee Brothers ranch in south-central Logan County, N.D.


As soon as humans leave the scene, they're drawn like magnets to the rows of large round hay bales picturesque farmstead among the Coteau Hills.

It's the same, day or night, but the hours around dawn and dusk are busiest. And it's not busy with the Black Angus cattle. No, it's about deer rushing in and grabbing at the ends of bales.

"It's like they have a conference every day and keep inviting more," rancher Cleo Boschee says.


He estimates there are 200 or 300 coming in nightly to the ranch headquarters, north of Lehr, N.D. Another herd of 100 or so earlier had settled a mile or two to the northeast.

"At night when you come driving in, there are eyes all over the place," Cleo says. "They've eaten some of the trees. On the evergreens, they're eating some of the needles off."

The winters have been pretty good for the past 10 years, but the last two have been difficult, says Cleo, whose lives in Wishek, N.D., while his brother, Richard, is on the home place.

"Normally, the deer bed down in the cattail sloughs, but they're all full of snow. We have more grass left than a lot of people have, but they can't get at it. Game and Fish guys say it's a lot easier for the deer to come in here and get a free meal."

Pro-wildlife pros

The Boschees generally have encouraged wildlife over the years and have won numerous awards for it.

The ranch sprawls across some 10,000 acres. Their 500 cows produce calves that they background-feed and sell into the "natural" market. The Boschees farming is mostly for cattle feed -- oats, corn, alfalfa and barley. This time of year, they keep their cows on one lot, the steers and heifers in other separate lots.

"We have a lot of wildlife because of that," Cleo says.


They've participated in numerous wildlife-friendly programs over the years -- "CSP, CRP," EQIP, says Cleo, who rattles off acronyms like the retired school administrator that he is.

The Boschee ranch has land in the Conservation Security Program, the Conservation Reserve Program and much of it has been improved with Environmental Quality Incentive Program. They have CRP land in the Private Land Open to Sportsmen program. They have fresh water in every pasture, accomplished through EQIP, as well as Chase Lake federal funds and Ducks Unlimited monies.

In a tough winter like this one, however, it's thosebales that the deer are after, and they've had about as much as they'd like of the deer this winter.

"Definitely," Boschee says. "I don't know how much they eat, but it's thousands of dollars. It's not so much what they eat, but what they damage. They get on top, and they urinate on it, and defecate on it, and pretty soon, the cows don't want it."

The Boschees put up about 4,000 to 5,000 bales in a year. About 1,600 of those are alfalfa this year -- 1,000 bales of first-cutting, 400 of second-cutting and about 100 of third-cutting. Another 400 or 500 are oat and barley hay. The rest are upland and CRP hay.

Third-cutting alfalfa is the target of preference.

"They like the best -- just like people," Cleo acknowledges. "It's kind of amazing they can even find it. They get on top of it, and it's net-wrapped and everything. They can still get on the ends of the bale and kind of stick their heads in."

A fast response


The Boschees usually take care of their own problems, but about six weeks ago, they called the North Dakota Game and Fish Department to ask for some help.

They got it.

On Feb. 23, a Game and Fish Department crew from Jamestown, N.D., came in and wrapped up the best of th Boschees' bales for safekeeping.

That's how the program is supposed to work, says Kevin Kading, private lands section leader for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck. "Every winter, there are some depradation problems," he says. "The severity of it depends on the winter and the weather that we have."

Problems like the Boschees' are impressive, but not uncommon, and the department does its best to respond. Relative to last year, the number of complaints is "well down," Kading says.

"Last year was a pretty long winter -- it started early and went late. This year, we didn't start receiving depradation problem complaints until after Christmas."

In fact, complaints so far in the winter of 2009 to '10 are 121 to date compared with 450 in 2008 to '09. This year's levels are one-tenth of the complaint levels in 1996 to '97, when the previous tough winter and flood season occurred.

Generally, the deer population is down in a lot of areas in the state but that varies by location, Kading says.

"Deer depradation is highly variable, depending on the weather, the food source -- what crops are out there," he says.

Deer might move into an area and camp out for a winter, but other times, they might pick up and move to the other side of a county.

"If they get a lot of hunting pressure in certain areas, they might move out of there. Or they might stay there," he says.

This year, there have been more complaints in the southeast and south-central parts of the state, Kading says.

"Probably that's because we have the bulk of our snow right now," he says.

In the wide-open Coteau areas in the central part of the state, there often isn't much habitat. Farmstead areas afford some protection -- and sometimes easy pickings -- for feed supplies that are intended for livestock.

Standing corn issues

Like last year, a lot of corn is standing in the field.

"We've gotten complaints where landowners don't want deer in their (standing) corn, but there isn't a lot we can do there. Some have suggested we shoot them, but if we went around shooting animals every time they're in the wrong spot, that wouldn't be popular."

It's also not practical to use snowmobiles or planes to run them off.

"When there's 2 feet of snow on the level, you're not going to run deer very far. They'll just stand there, not moving, as if to say, 'Good luck.'"

That changes the distribution of deer in the country.

"If there's another food source out (standing corn), they'd rather be in that than in a guy's yard," Kading says. "We've gotten complaints where landowners don't want deer in their corn, but there isn't a lot we can do there -- getting deer out of corn."

The department sometimes gets called from frustrated landowners, asking the department to come out and shoot the deer, but that's not popular.

"If we were going to go around, shooting animals every time they're in the wrong spot, that's not going to be popular either," he says.

Deer are opportunists and tend to be selective for the best feed available, which can be vexing.

"If they have chopped hay or silage, the deer often will tune in to that," Kading says. "When that happens, we need to tune into that as soon as possible. The sooner we get after it, the better, before the deer start knocking over bales and chewing them up."

Long-term solutions

The state's strategy in dealing with deer depradation starts with managing the hunting season -- changing the number of deer tags available for either does or bucks in a particular unit.

That is a kind of formula, based on aerial winter aerial surveys on established "monitoring blocks" as well as hunter harvest by unit and license type, hunter observation surveys of deer sighted per hour of effort, and deer-

vehicle collisions on a county-by-county basis.

Also, the agency monitors staff input on deer depredation and other public feedback, among other things. Deer concentrations vary within a hunting unit depend on the habitat factors, such as rivers, woodlands, cattail marshes, pastures, CRP and cropland, the land use and access by hunters,

The state program "requires our staff to respond back to complaints within 24 hours and conduct an on-site investigation within 48 hours," Kading says.

Responses include technical assistance, short-term treatments and long-term treatments.

There is a difference in "landowner tolerance," Kading says.

"Some don't mind a few deer; some don't want any. Some don't mind 200 to 300. We try to strike a balance between what landowners want and what hunters want," he says.

Evaluating landowner wishes is an ongoing process. Each district has a district manager, who is in contact with landowners. There are advisory boards that meet with state game managers every spring and fall.

"People call us out of the blue -- 'There are way too many deer. There are way too few deer," he says.

Deer license numbers have been increasing from year to year, Kading says.

"Right now, we're reviewing our five-year management goals where we sit down and look at all of these unit goals and see where we're at, where we want to be."

$1 million for depradation

Kading is responsible for activities under the Private Land Initiative, a program that totals $10 million for the biennium, or about $5 million per year.

The largest piece of that program is for the Private Land Open to Sportsmen, or PLOTS, program, about $3.25 million a year. Another big piece is the depradation program, involving big game only and primarily deer. The state spent $1.5 million for depredation mitigation in winter of 1996 to '97. The state spent $1 million in the 2008 to '09 winter, and costs aren't yet available this year.

This winter, the department has responded to about 120 people with regard to deer depredation. In the bulk of those cases, the department has come out and wrapped the bales with black, temporary snow fencing. The farmer must remove some snow around the hay, but gets the materials for free.

"The theory is to get them wrapped as tightly around the bales as possible, to create a vertical wall," Kading says. "They're still able to nibble through and peck, but they can't paw and eat the bale from the inside-out. That's a proven tool we've got.

"It can eliminate or minimize most of the situation, if we can get on it soon enough."

Kading says that it often is helpful to do the wrapping earlier in the season so that crews don't have to work in subzero January and February temperatures.

Where it's not feasible to wrap bale piles with fencing, the department sometimes advises surrounding the good bales with bales of straw or hay of poorer hay.

The materials are free and the agency provides a crew to put the snow fences out, but the landowner is largely responsible for shoring things up through the season.

In the spring, the agency comes to pick up the fencing, as it can be used several times over. If left out in the sunshine over a summer, however, the sun exposure destroys it.

Permanent hay yards

In serious, chronic cases, the department offers permanent deer-proof hay yards.

The standard size is 2.5 acres (about 300 feet by 300 feet) and offers a 6½-foot-high, woven fence, plus a couple of rows of barbed wire on top of that, for a total of about 7 feet.

The installation comes with a light-weight gate. The state provides a general template on installing it, but individual ranchers design it their own way.

"Some want it long and narrow, others want it perfectly square," he says.

It involves about $3,000 in materials, Kading says, and the farmer is required to put it up and maintain it. The department had been doing some of this since the late 1970s, but more recently since the early 1990s.

"There's about 500 of these around the state," Kading says, noting that's about $1.2 million over a decade. "That's a lot of money, but when you think about all of the time every year, dealing with it on a temporary basis, it's probably money ahead of the game. It works well for the landowners."

Of course, there is no payment to compensate ranchers for damage for deer depradation.

"Where would it end?" he asks. "Every time a deer took a bite out of something, that would be considered damages."

What about feeding?

Cleo Boschee says he'll probably have to get the permanent hay yard for next year.

For now, he's happy for the protection that the temporary fencing has provided for at least some of his hay.

"It's kind of a nuisance. You have to move the fencing when you want to get at the hay," he says.

He wonders if other solutions might be better.

He thinks back to years past when wildlfife groups had feeding programs. They tided over hungry deer so they wouldn't start moving in on farmsteads.

"They claim there's a problem with disease with feeding, but they're congregating in here and feeding. We're concerned about our 500 cows. If there were a reproductive disease spread from the deer, it would be disaster. I've checked with our veterinarian at Jamestown. They say the disease doesn't transmit (between species), but you have to wonder."

The sad truth is that a lot of the deer -- the youngest and oldest, bucks that have weakened with the fall rut -- that won't survive in any case.

"The other day, there were 10 coyotes in the yard," he says. "You know what they're doing, they're cleaning up on the dead ones."


Other options

Besides the black snow fencing and permanent deer-proof hay yards, there are other options the Game and Fish Department offers to landowners, says Kevin Kading, state private lands section leader:

-n Allow more hunting. "Our deer gun season is the best management tool we have," Kading says. Muzzle loader hunters and bow hunters can be in the mix. "We may not always be harvesting deer, but the activity of moving deer around -- that pressure on them -- can have an effect. Sometimes, this can involve the landowner participating in the PLOTS program, for which they receive state payment to allow hunter access. About 1 million acres are in the program.

- Hunter-Landowner Contact Program. This puts landowners in contact with hunters who are willing to harvest antlerless deer. The program has been available less than four years.

- Repellants. The state doesn't provide repellants, but the state does provide a list of commercially available products. Farmers with deer depradation on trees will sometimes use repellants to keep the deer off. There are some home remedies. Scare devices. These are propane-boomers, similar to what are used with blackbirds. These have mixed success, however, because hungry deer can grow accustomed to the sound. "If you catch them early enough in the season, though, it may be noisy enough where the deer decide they're not going to set up camp there."

This winter, the department has responded to about 120 people with regard to deer depredation. In the bulk of those cases, the department has come out and wrapped the bales with black, temporary snow fence. In some cases, the department will provide landowners with shotgun shells -- crackers -- that can be shot over where deer are feeding, and offer secondary rapports.

- Electronic guards. These use motion detectors, sirens and lights. "It's all available through our program, but it doesn't mean that if you have two deer in your yard you can come and get all of this stuff," Kading says. "We have to do a site visit and make a case-by-case evaluation."

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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